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Sweet Sixteen • Beethoven’s 16 quartets

Opus 59, No. 1 in F major – seventh of Beethoven’s sixteen string quartets – was a product of a 35-year-old man at the zenith of his creative powers. Beethoven was working on the Eroica Symphony when he started this, seven years after he had finished the six quartets of Opus 18.

Count Andrei Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, who played second violin in his own quartet, commissioned three string quartets from Beethoven, who used several themes from Russian folk songs to honor his patron. The ebullient, swinging, expansive opening theme returns in many guises throughout Beethoven’s ingenious development. Contrary to usual practice, each movement is in sonata form; the first is the longest and the broadest in range. The end of the movement is classic Beethoven – a tender questioning phrase, a transition, and then a crashing resolution.

The cello’s rhythmic repetition of B flat introduces a second movement unique among string quartets. Again, Beethoven builds a monument of sonata structure on a skeletal framework of monotone – in Tovey’s words, “a vision of dry bones.” If the first movement is a superb exercise of melody, the second movement is an apotheosis of rhythm.

The adagio is an introspective lament that matches the pathos of the slow movements of the late quartets of two decades later. After a complex development Beethoven uses a long violin trill to lead us into the lively finale. The “theme russe” – long, discursive, and reminiscent of the great theme that introduced the first movement – was a Russian tune in a book of folk songs that Beethoven owned and annotated in his own hand. Although many commentators have cavilled that the finale is on a slightly less exalted plane than the rest of the quartet, others find the complex, brilliant development of this theme a powerful, dramatic, and wholly satisfying conclusion to the work.

Beethoven’s innovations were too much for some of his contemporaries. The cellist in Razumovsky’s quartet found his part so complicated that he gave up, threw it on the floor, and declared it unplayable. We do not know just how Count Razumovsky resolved this little labor dispute.

… We are fortunate to [begin this festival with] one of the greatest compositions ever written – a landmark even for Beethoven.

Craig B. Leman, written for the 1987 performance by the Takacs Quartet for Friends of Chamber Music (now Chamber Music Corvallis)

Mood Sequence – for Flute, Cello, and Piano      David Crumb 1962-

Composed on commission for the Chintimini Chamber Music Festival in 2012, titled at the time “Killer Shorts

Simple
Manic
Echo
Ecstatic
Reprise

Catherine Peterson, flute   Anne Ridlington, cello   Monica Ohuchi, piano

David Crumb is a contemporary composer born into a musical family, educated at Eastman School and University of Pennsylvania. After teaching at Duke, UCLA, and St. Mary’s he settled in Eugene to teach composition at University of Oregon. He has won many prizes and honors.

He writes: “While composing Killer Shorts, I became interested in the idea of extreme contrast. The work unfolds as a series of stark juxtapositions between subtle, delicate music (1. Simple 3. Echo 5. Reprise), and bold, forceful music (2. Manic 4. Ecstatic). These juxtapositions are highly dramatic, and serve to create “hard edges” inside the form; this in turn helps bring clarity to the multi-movement structure. The movements are organized in a symmetrical manner, the final movement being a literal reprise of the first, except that the cello takes the melody over from the flute. Stylistically, these pieces are perhaps somewhat derivative of the music of Béla Bartók, a particularly favorite composer of mine.”

Craig Leman, for the June 19, 2012 premiere. Recently this work was awarded the national Heckscher Prize in composition. The recording submitted in the competition was Chintimini’s performance, by Catherine Peterson, Jason Duckles, and Monica Ohuchi. The composer was invited to Ithaca, NY, in April 2015 to receive the honor. The piece also won in the 2015 Portland (Maine) Chamber Music Festival’s International Composers Competition.

Serenade for Flutes, Violin, and Viola (2012)    Kenji Bunch     1973-

Commissioned by Chintimini through Chamber Music America’s Classical Commissioning program. Premiered at the Chintimini festival in 2013, and performed more than 10 times subsequently outside of Oregon.

Prelude: Chorale
March
Scherzo
Nocturne
Interlude
Chorale (reprise)
Finale

Catherine Peterson, flutes   Erik Peterson, violin   Phillip Stevens, viola

The composer speaks: “This work was commissioned through a grant from Chamber Music America for the Ivy Street Ensemble, a trio composed of flute, violin, and viola. The unusual instrumentation of this group presented some interesting compositional challenges.

“Coincidentally, soon after I began my sketches for the work last summer, I was asked to perform the viola part in Beethoven’s Serenade for the same combination of instruments. This offered an invaluable opportunity to experience the sonorities of this ensemble from within, at the hands of one of the great masters. I decided I would create a new piece inspired by the classic Beethoven work, also titled Serenade.

“In the tradition of the eighteenth century serenade, this new work features a series of short movements, light in character, some played continuously. To update this tradition, I add several more contemporary techniques (plucking, strumming, harmonics, etc.) and have augmented the flute part by adding moments for both the alto flute and piccolo.

“The work is dedicated to my friends in the Ivy Street Ensemble, and is roughly 15 minutes in duration.”

Craig Leman, quoting the composer, for the June 25, 2013 premiere.